Canonical Queerness and Gothic Horror in “Plain Bad Heroines”

An interview with emily m. danforth about her new novel, "Plain Bad Heroines."

In 1902 at The Brookhants School for Girls, The Story of Mary MacLane is found on the bodies of Flo and Clara, two girls, in love, stung to death by yellow jackets in an apple orchard. The little red book mysteriously disappears, only to be found again and again by the women who need it most. But they don’t know the cost of carrying the memoir, which details MacLane’s feminism, lesbianism, and dealings with the devil; some pay with their sanity, others with their lives.

Over a century later, a Los Angeles film crew travels to Rhode Island to make a movie about the tragedies on the long-abandoned campus, where they find so many unexpected hauntings. The yellow jackets still buzz and strike. Unsettled spirits watch and wait. And yet, in the shadows of Brookhants, girls continue to find each other and themselves. That is, as it has always been, worth the cost of any curse that may befall them.

emily m. danforth’s latest novel, Plain Bad Heroines, is a dream and a nightmare. It’s over 600 pages of queer history, horror, and Hollywood—half of which I bookmarked to return to—complete with charming illustrations, witty narrator footnotes, and dazzling, dark prose. I spoke with danforth about her writing process, canonical queerness, and horror as an escape.

Jen Cox

You’ve said this has long felt like the book you had to write, and I can imagine why. But I would love to hear it in your words. 

emily m. danforth

This novel, and the yearslong process of writing it, allowed me to revel and delight in so many of my favorite preoccupations: gilded-age customs and historic Sapphics and horror movies and New England gothic. I love big novels with intersecting storylines, all the more so if they’re expressly queer, so of course I wanted to write one. I also just wasn’t actually sure I could write this novel in the way I wanted it to come out. You know, with the shifting time periods and the meta elements and the winking-narration all working in concert. I felt like I had something to prove to myself about returning to so many of the things I first loved about fiction as a reader—scary stories and twisting plots—and seeing if I could work with those elements as a writer. My first novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, was a rather quiet, first-person coming-of-age story, and while I still love that form, and obsessively read novels of that ilk for years, as an artist, I needed to find a new road—or many new roads with this novel. I needed to do that for myself more than anything.

Jen Cox

I’d imagine such a big, rich novel developed as paintings do, layer after layer. Am I right? What was your process? 

emily m. danforth

That feels pretty accurate, at least in terms of large swaths of the book. Because I originally conceived of this novel as telling only the story of the making of the horror film, with the three contemporary P.O.V. characters, I got stuck for a long while— years long while—when I realized that wasn’t going to be enough.

What I mean is: I started with this idea for a creepy location—an abandoned, coastal, Gilded Age New England boarding school for WASPy girls that was now, in the present day, understood as cursed and haunted. Great. I could see all of that: its crumbling remains, the dark rim of woods, the blue flash of water. But I didn’t know why the place was abandoned, or why it was said to once be cursed: specifically, what tragedies had happened there over the years? And in trying to answer that question for myself—and doing all kinds of research into early 1900s boarding schools and women’s colleges—I became more and more enamored with fully telling the story of Brookhants the school, and not just using it as setting or alluding to its dark past.

I wanted to show Brookhants, in scene, in 1902, while this supposed curse was ravaging the campus. And it took me a long time to give myself permission to write the novel this way. Once I did, things actually moved rather quickly. I mean, I wrote maybe 1/3 of it in a few months, as opposed to the years it took me to write my way into a corner and then stay there until I talked my way back out. 

Jen Cox

Though Sapphic literature is thriving these days, we still have to make up for centuries of lost stories. Plain Bad Heroines does far more than its fair share with regards to adding characters to this canon. There are dozens of queer people in this book. Was this something you had in mind as you plotted? 

emily m. danforth

I don’t know if it was “in mind” as I plotted so much as it’s never not on my mind—the lives of queer people, Sapphics especially, in the world around me. I’ll never not write about lesbians, in some capacity. And not only, or even largely, because I feel some duty to some imagined canon, you know? It’s much more simple and direct than that. I just want to read about all kinds of lesbians in all kinds of novels. So, as a novelist, it makes sense that I write some of those novels myself.

Jen Cox

Libbie and Alex (Brookhants’ principal and her partner) are such well-developed characters. We have so few stories about middle-aged lesbians, and so few period characters who feel real with complex interior lives and desires. Was this intentional as well?

emily m. danforth

It was very intentional. In fact, wanting page time with Libbie and Alex, and their relationship, in scene, was a big part of what convinced me that I had to write this novel as a story that explored both past and present at Brookhants. It was not how I had originally conceived of this novel, or how I pitched and sold it, initially, which became something of a problem when I got far enough along in my writing that it became clear I couldn’t tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, if I only told about the present day filming of the movie and the contemporary characters involved in that process. There just wouldn’t be room, in that version of the novel, to explore the lives of these characters from the past—to show readers who they were, how they loved, how they’d betrayed one another. And I am a middle-aged lesbian! I want to see myself in stories, too—just like everyone else.

It was crucial to me to show how these women came to be a couple at this time. Part of this was because I wanted to indulge in the research I’d done into the extraordinary prevalence of, and even sometimes cultural sanctioning of, these highly intimate and devoted relationships between American (WASP) women away at college at the turn of the twentieth century. But part of it was also that, in keeping with the gothic horrors this novel explores, I knew that all of these dreadful things were about to happen to Libbie and Alex. I just felt like it was really important that readers get to see them in much better times, when they weren’t just unraveling in the wake of tragedy at their school and embittered and tired. It seemed like I owed it to these characters to give them a scene or two in this novel that was more hopeful about who they were then, and who they might become to one another.

Jen Cox

This book takes place primarily in Rhode Island and Hollywood. In your mind, what are their relationships to each other?

emily m. danforth

Growing up, I tended to romanticize both Hollywood, and also certain locations or time periods in Rhode Island—like Gilded Age Newport, for instance—as almost other-worldly in their capacity for glamour and intrigue. They loomed large in the landscape of my imagination as a middleclass queer kid growing up in a small rural town in Montana far away from either. And I know I wasn’t alone in this.

As an adult, I of course have a much more nuanced understanding of both of these places, and how decidedly unromantic they can be. My wife and I live in Rhode Island, and there is nothing romantic about our failing bridges and roadways, our egregiously bad drivers, our very troubled and underfunded public schools, all the litter I can see collected in the gutter outside my window as I type this. However, I do still think of both Hollywood and parts of RI as places that dwell in a kind of unreality. Hollywood was built to create make believe, right? That’s what it’s for — that’s what it does. Though we know that in order to churn-out that gorgeous make believe for decades, now, there’s an equally long history of deeply troubling behavior and circumstances behind the camera. Just as there’s a deeply troubling history of how all those captains of industry got the money to build their elaborate mansions along Bellevue Ave in Newport. Even back in 1903, Mary MacLane was commenting on the unreality of wealthy Newport, which she visited the summer after her debut memoir became such a sensation. She called Newport’s famous blue hydrangeas, “fascinating and false, like everything else in Newport by the sea.” Ultimately, that’s what I think Hollywood and (parts) of RI have in common: they’re both fascinating and false.

Jen Cox

The illustrations! So marvelous! Tell me about how you found the artist, and why it was such an important addition to this printing. 

emily m. danforth

It was Sara Lautman who found me! And I’m so glad she did. She read my first novel and emailed me to say that if I ever wanted to collaborate on an essay or a short story, she’d be game.

Sometime in 2016, I was making some progress with this novel, and thinking a lot about illustrated novels at the turn of the 20th century and I thought: this is the story that should be illustrated! Luckily: Sara was into the idea immediately and had so much to say about illustrated novels, and canonical queerness as part of the history of boarding school novel illustrations—androgynous and “sporty” representations of women being the norm rather than the exception in so many of those books.

Something else the novel is concerned with—thematically and also in terms of its gothic play—is various acts of looking. Of seeing. There are several characters who, voyeuristically or accidentally (or some combination of both), witness things they are not supposed to see, things that then alter their outlooks. The novel is very preoccupied with asking: who is doing the looking at any given time, and who is being observed? And more to the point: who knows it? I think the illustrations become yet another way of looking at this world, at this story—another vantage point—one with its own abilities and limitations.

Jen Cox

You’ve told me that writing and reading horror has felt like escapism for you while we live in such horrible times. Is that still true?

emily m. danforth

It is! If stories help us make sense of a chaotic world, and I think they do, then horror stories just raise the stakes on that chaos, which—sometimes—makes the “sense-making” part all the more enjoyable for me.

I was recently reading this great interview with the late (gay) horror novelist Michael McDowell. He says that, and I’m paraphrasing—the wrong things are going to happen in your life, in this world—real horrors—the wrong people will die, and too young; your mother hates you; your best friend is wounded or falls ill and does not recover—and one way of putting order on that disorder is by postulating the stuff of horror—so it’s the monster in your closet that’s making you unhappy, that’s what’s causing you distress. Maybe it’s easier to have a discussion about that monster, to really think of its limitations or even its unreality, than it is some of the other stuff.

I’m not sure that what McDowell says gets at all of my love for horror—some of it is just the sense of escaping into manufactured stress and drama that I know eventually has to end. There’s real relief in that. Plus, you can just close the book and walk away. There’s relief in that, too. I also take comfort in knowing that the horror on the page is a fiction. I mean, there are horrifying fictions all around us these days, masquerading as fact, so I find it comforting when I know I can just relax, because the writer wrote a novel, and therefore is, at least in part, lying to me. But I know they are, it’s part of the form! We’ve agreed at the outset: please lie to me and make it creepy.

Plain Bad Heroines
By emily m. danforth
William Morrow & Company
Published October 20, 2020

About Jen Cox

Jen Cox is the fiction editor for Arcturus Magazine, a Daily Editor at the Chicago Review of Books, and has work in Gigantic Sequins, The Rumpus, and F(r)iction. She is working on her novel about two girls in love at the end of the world. Find her on Twitter: @jencoxshah.

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